The other great mobile education movement

I am aware dear reader that much of my writings on how learning is handling the inevitable rise of ubiquitous computing centre’s around the iPhone/iPod touch/iPad platform. But in this post I’d like to reflect a little on the other great mobile education movement of the last three years – that of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) ‘children’s machine’. While even the latest version 1.5 of the XO laptop they build and supply  has tech that is getting a little behind, it does have at least three distinct advantages over the iPod/iPhone/iPad platform:

1. Designed for children – yep, rather than being a consumer or business device that crafty educators are able to integrate into educational settings, the XO was designed ground-up to be in students hands. I mean its bright green! When a student first sees one, they know already this is for them – and that means their use of it for learning starts at a unique place. This is a factor not to be underestimated.

2. Automatic collaboration – while there are a growing number of  iPod touch apps that can use wifi or bluetooth to do some basic screen-sharing or sending of files etc, another of the distinguishing features of the XO laptop is that sharing and collaboration is built in automatically to practically every activity, even the camera. Its not something students even have to think – ‘oh can I work on this with someone?’ (or two, or four etc), but is simply a matter of switching to the dedicated ‘friends’ screen and sending the invitation.

3. Dual screen modes – the announcement of the iPad means that one of the XO’s advantages (larger screen) will shortly be neutered, but the ability of the screen to work as a regular colour LCD indoors, and a black and white screen outdoors with full readability in direct sunlight gives the XO a big advantage over the glossy  iPad as far as true mobile learning goes.

4. Ok I know I said three – but this one is not one of mine – Flash support. I don’t use flash hardly at all, but I know alot of educators that do rely on it for hundreds of interactive learning objects that are totally unavailable in the Apple mobile world. How long it takes for these to eventually be ported over to Java/HTML5 or turned into the mobile apps (via Adobe conversion software) that are becoming more of the standard for such software I don’t know, but until then, educators are great hoarders, and so Flash support remains an issue.

Of course there are downsides to the XO laptop also (such as the aforementioned aging hardware, and the fact that a more natural touch-based version may be more than two years away). As a final note to this comparison, I don’t know how many of the 140,000 iPod touch apps are educational, but a developer in that space recently mentioned a figure of 3-4000 to me. Anyone reading out there know how many XO activities (the OLPC name for apps) there are?

iPad announced; mobile, ubiquitous computing advances


Its no secret that I believe touch and gestural-based input will be a big part of the way that the computing we’ve known and used to begin the information revolution over the last 20 years transforms into everyware, ubiquitous computing. Whatever side of the preferred digital platform you sit on, you have to admit that the direction market leader Apple (now the world’s largest mobile device company) is taking is away from traditional desktop and even notebook devices towards direct, touch based interfaces will inspire others to follow. One example is the new mobile version of office suite iWork – a traditional, graphics heavy desktop software that now has a new, simplified, finger-friendly interface. How will other desktop-class programs look on such a device, and more importantly, how does learning benefit when you can remove much of the ‘spend time working out the software’ from the equation?

By bringing the convenience of iTunes and App store access to books, the new iBook store also has the potential to do for a currently non-digital medium what has occurred for music, video and apps over the last decade – namely bring it into the digital age, democratise sharing and creation, all while including the direct interaction with our media that we are used to (ie. flipping digital pages by touch).

Will follow the development of devices like the iPad and what they mean for learning with great interest. Question – how practical is a tablet in a school environment? We’ll find out in 60-90 days!

2010: the year we make contact?

Welcome to 2010. I feel a bit foolish writing my first 2010 blog entry when the announcement that might define mobile and ubiquitous computing this year is still a week away, but there have been enough early signs from a range of companies to make some assumptions, and speculate on what they will mean for learning that attempts to take advantage them.

The previous decade has seen computing move from being desk-based to lap and now hand-based, no doubt about it. Laptop sales overtook desktop pc sales, and mobile phone sales have long dwarfed both. In fact sales of Smartphones (or mobile phones that are also computers) will very shortly pass those of laptops to become the main way that we access and share information.

That’s the hardware story. Software wise, I think the picture is less clear as the different design and interface requirements of mobile devices is not something that most hardware makers have yet got their heads around. But there is an emerging way of controlling hardware, and by extension, interacting with information that has come to maturity in the last couple of years, and that is touch, direct contact between our natural selection devices (fingers) and the machines we are using.

Coupled with the release of multiple tablet-like touch devices (such as the several models announced at the CES events, and the expected Apple iSlate in late January), its fair to say that this kind of personalised, more natural computing could be the real hallmark of 2010. I’m excited to see what happens as it becomes possible to move back to a direct hand-eye form of control that has been lost while we used physical keyboards that made us look somewhere different to our fingers, pretty much for the first time in communication history.

So, is learning and the institutions who’s job it is to propagate it ready to embrace a touch-computing future? I’d like to think so. The presence of over 50 teachers at a day exploring the iPod touch in education yesterday – while they were still on holidays – indicates that at least in my Education Department, interest is high. What I love about the potential of simplified, touch-based interfaces I hope to see is that they open up computing to everyone. There is nothing between you and the information and you, and the smaller screen sizes are forcing companies to reduce clutter and non-logical menu’s and buttons. Sounds like the sort of improvements that can benefit students right?